The Birds and the Bees, the Flowers and the Trees

Sunday, July 9, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania (map)

Dino displays a classmate's catch
Our ecology class enjoyed an exciting first week. Each morning a few of us joined Professor Dino on an optional morning walk, which consisted of us walking for an hour or two down one of the dirt roads around the university, pointing to birds, bugs and plants and making Dino tell us the fascinating story of each one.

Early on we spotted red-breasted sunbirds, black kites, pied kingfishers, mousebirds with their long flowing tails, red-cheeked cordon bleus and numerous other birds.

Later we happened upon a colony of safari ants, known as siafu in Swahili, and learned from Dino that this dangerous species has been known to occasionally eat babies, and is even capable of significantly harming adult humans—particularly drunk ones who pass out along the roadside late at night and wake up eye-less the next morning. Upon finding such prey, the ants climb stealthily into
position across the victim’s entire body, then through a rapid process of chemical signaling, they all unleash their powerful bite simultaneously. Having been bitten by a few which crawled up my leg several days ago, I can imagine that a full-body attack would be tremendously painful. Hence, when a fellow student recently discovered that the safari ants had entered her room and taken over her bathroom in the course of dinner this evening, she and everyone else in the building quickly found extra beds to sleep in elsewhere.

Nets and notebooks in hand, we have spent the week traipsing behind Dino across the cow pastures, tomato fields, and papyrus swamps that line the lake shore, searching for dragonflies. One local species, the Blue Emperor, can grow to reach a wingspan of 70cm, though we have yet to encounter one of those.

Class also takes us onto the lake. After befriending some local fishermen, Dino managed to hire them to take us around the shoreline for more wildlife observation. The fishermen, who spend 12 hours each night on the lake casting and hauling in their nets, are happy to paddle us around, as doing so probably provides them with at least as much income as a long night’s work.

Cruising around the nearby inlets of the lake, we have spotted monitor lizards basking on the rocky shore, African fish eagles expertly snatching their prey from the water, bright malachite kingfishers flitting about, and playful otters enjoying being chased by our boat. The shallows are stalked by gangly, human-size marabou storks, elegant white egrets, hamerkops, and sacred ibises.

Yesterday, the unsuspecting fishermen steered us too close to a reed-covered bank where a large female Nile crocodile was guarding her nest. Without warning, the bank beside us suddenly erupted into a thundering mass of reeds, water, and thrashing crocodile, then went silent as quickly as it had begun, as the croc slipped into the water. Seconds later, on the other side of the boat and just a meter or two from where we sat, the crocodile roared to the surface in another violent, flailing mass, then disappeared beneath the surface as our boat anxiously scurried away.

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In addition to our daily class trips, I have also been able to leave the university’s campus and explore the surroundings thanks to my new bike, which I am renting for the month from Anatory, the cook in the university cafeteria.

Soon after arriving in Mwanza, some wandering around and inquiring about where to purchase a bicycle led me to the cook, who the next day brought me exactly the bike I had wanted since arriving in Tanzania. The bike, an East Asian import called a Phoenix (and, rather ironically, pronounced like "phonics" by the locals), is little more than two wheels and a seat. The front wheel wobbles, and luxuries such as multiple gears and even brakes are nowhere to be found. In short, it’s perfect: the true Tanzanian standard, ridden by everyone in the area. "This is a farmer’s bike," the cook had chuckled when my face lit up at the first sight of it.

For cycling among the fields and pastures that line the southern shore of Lake Victoria, with no skyscrapers, street lamps or traffic jams in sight, a farmer’s bike is just what I need.

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